Joe Lee Davis was born February 22, 1906 in Lexington, Kentucky, the son of Robert Lee and Jo Greene Davis. He graduated from the University of Kentucky receiving his B.A. degree in 1926 and his master of arts degree in 1927. For three years, Davis worked as an instructor in English at the University of Kentucky, then in 1930, he came to the University of Michigan where he received his doctorate in English in 1934. While a student, Davis was also a member of the U-M English department faculty, serving as an instructor from 1930 to 1937. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1937, associate professor in 1944, and professor in 1948.
As a teacher in the English department, Davis' specialties were American literature and 17th-century English literature. Professor Davis was a widely recognized authority on Ben Jonson and his contemporaries (the so-called "Sons of Ben"), as well as 20th-century authors James Branch Cabell and George Santayana. He was a prolific author, writing scholarly and popular articles on his specialties and American fiction in general. At the university, Davis helped to found the Program in American Culture and served as its chairman from 1952 to 1969.
Professor Joe Lee Davis died February 19, 1974.